iOS and the commodification of media

Even though I'm "web native" (to use a horrible phrase) through and through - I live in HTTP & HTML - the developments of Apple's iOS platform (used on the iPhone and iPad) still fascinate me. Partly I think this is because the platform is tacking against many of the major paradigms of the computing (for instance by focusing on full-screen attention-holding applications rather than multi-tasking and tabs).

One aspect of the iOS platform is particular intriguing me at the moment, which is the dilemma of how 'commoditised' different forms of media. I don't mean this in a pejorative term, but rather, the degree to which different forms of media define the experience around them.

Let's take a few examples. Within iTunes, music, television programmes and movies are all commoditised media types. They come in standard formats (AAC in the case of music, H.264 in the case of video), and are consumed using a 'player' app, which on the iPhone is called 'iPod'.

When Apple launched 'books' on the iPad, they too were commoditised, using the EPUB file format, and the 'iBooks' reader application.

On the other hand, games are relatively un-commoditied. They're all stand-alone applications, free to adopt whichever user interfaces they  like.

So far, this can be thought of as simply the classic distinction between 'executable' and non-executable file formats.

However, there's a range of media which straddles this divide. Top of this list are magazines. Because there's no established file formats for magazines, and because Apple doesn't currently have a framework for payment subscriptions, most magazines for the iPad and iPhone are published as separate applications for each issue.

Similarly, there's no in-built way on the iPhone or iPad for listening to radio stations, and so many radio stations have published stand-alone applications allowing you to listen to them, something Apple has apparently now banned from submissions to the App Store.

Even within books, for instance, there are some interactive books such as Alice, which are published as apps rather than standard books.

Rupert Murdoch is reportedly working on an iPad-native newspaper, due to launch soonish (Phil Gyford has written a good defence of why it 'might not be doomed'). One thing that doesn't seem to be known for sure at the moment is exactly what form this will take. Most commentators however seem to think that it'll just be a standard application, rather than being part of a 'newspaper' framework on the operating system.

The reason this subject interests me is because there seems to be a wider trend for innovation to happen initially at the user interface and experience level, and then for this to settle down, become standard, and the competition to happen at the content or community level. For instance, on the web, blogs can be said to have been commoditised through technologies like RSS, which make blog design redundant, and instead allow people to consume hundreds of blog posts much more quickly through readers like Google Reader.

The dilemma for me is that as a designer (in the broad sense), I'm interested in exploring user interfaces and interaction, but as a consumer, often I want media to be as commoditised as possible, so that I can consume it faster, and with more control over its appearance. However, occasionally, I also want to be surprised by something different.

So for iOS, I suspect that newspapers, magazines, and radio stations will eventually become commoditised and supported directly by the OS. Which might not initially be welcomed by publishers, but will eventually prove to be the better choice for consumers.

In the meantime, there will be a bit of flux as things settle down...